Jets offensive coordinator John Morton is a bit of an open book. He doesn't have a lot of experience running an offense. He has, however, worked under a number of big name offensive minds. This is the first post in a series that will look at some of the philosophies of the coaches who have been influences for Morton. Today we look at Sean Payton.
Payton has long been considered one of the league's biggest passing game gurus. There aren't many true offensive systems teams run in the NFL. Virtually every team runs some offshoot of one out of a handful of systems. Payton's offense in New Orleans has elements of two of the league's primary systems, the West Coast Offense and the Air Coryell offense. Like any effective coach, he has taken some basic elements and expanded on them to offer his own unique twist. I apologize in advance since there are a lot of broad generalizations and oversimplifications in the name of (hopefully) making the broad concepts easy to undersand.
West Coast Offense
What is now known as the West Coast Offense has its roots with legendary coach Bill Walsh. Walsh worked under some of the most brilliant passing architects in the history of football from Al Davis to Sid Gillman to Don Coryell. (More on him later.)
Walsh's West Coast offense had its roots from his time working as Bengals assistant under the legendary Paul Brown with responsibility for the offense.
The Bengals had an elite prospect named Greg Cook. His career was derailed by a shoulder injury. Perhaps with today's medical resources it would have not been as devastating of an injury, but it essentially ended his career.
The Bengals were forced to turn to a quarterback named Virgil Carter, a player who owned little arm talent. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Walsh had to devise an offense around a quarterback who lacked a big arm. The West Coast Offense was born.
Walsh developed an offense based around short, timing routes. The idea was to get the ball out quickly. A bunch of high percentage short and intermediate passes could produce consistent positive gains. If the receiver could break a tackle, or the defense blew an assignment, you could turn it into a really big gain. At a minimum, a high percentage pass allowed for a good play for the offense. It could turn great.
Walsh eventually took the offense to Stanford and then to the San Francisco 49ers where he won three Super Bowls as head coach, and the team rode his offensive philosophy to another two after he left.
Walsh's offense was revolutionary in the sense it evolved by the time he reached San Francisco to send all five eligible receivers, including backs and tight ends into patterns, putting potential targets across the field from sideline to sideline. The wider the section of the field the defense has to cover, the more stress it is under. For a visual representation, see the hi-tech GGN graphics below that show a couple of ways a defense could be aligned.
Hopefully in the majesty of these graphics, you get the point. By using the backs and tight ends in the passing game, you could send them on route to get defenders, linebackers in particular out wide. This stretched the defense from sideline to sideline with five possible targets. This created space, which is good for the offense. The defense being forced to defend more field is bad for it, though.
While short passes to backs could and serve as run plays. The pass could also set up the run. With defenders potentially stretched out, the gaps to run were bigger, and effective run plays became easier to execute.
So if this offense was developed by Walsh when he was coaching the Bengals, why is it called the West Coast Offense? It came from a Bill Parcells taunt after his Giants beat Walsh's 49ers playing stifling defense in the 1985 Playoffs. Parcells had enough of the media talking about how great the offense was and after the game asked, "What do you think of that West Coast offense now?" He was mocking the finesse of a team from out West. The name stuck, though, and given the success Walsh and and the staying power of the principles, the West Coast Offense is nothing to laugh at.
After putting in a lot of work to research what you see above, I stumbled across this article, which essentially has all of the same information but is much more comprehensive. I recommend giving it a read for more context.
To run this offense effectively, it takes a quarterback with smarts above all else. He has to be able to make very quick decisions. It also requires accuracy. There isn't much time for the receivers to gain separation, and the quick throws required near the line of scrimmage tend to come in areas with heavy traffic. The ball has to be delivered with precision. Accuracy, touch, and anticipation are more important than arm strength.
Early in his career, Payton worked under West Coast enthusiast Jon Gruden with the Eagles.
Nobody in the league runs the West Coast offense exactly the way Bill Walsh did. The game has evolved from Walsh's days but you certainly still see his influence in the way many coaches, including Payton build their offenses.
The slant is one of the go-to routes in a West Coast system.
Here is how it looks in the Bill Walsh playbook from 1985.
Against tight coverage at the line, it is pretty simple. The receiver goes hard for three to five steps and then cuts inside to slip inside the defender.
You can see some of these concepts converge on this play.
Back in the Walsh days, he didn't really make extensive use of personnel groupings or formations to help stretch the defense out. There was a lot of two back, one tight end sets. In modern days, you see more of it.
Here at the top of the picture, you can see how the Saints have three receivers to the left side of the formation. That leaves Michael Thomas alone near the bottom of the screen. Because the field is stretched horizontally, the Chargers have to dedicate resources to cover that left side and leave Thomas one on one of the right side. This creates a favorable matchup for the slant.
Football Outsiders wrote a great article over a decade ago about a classic West Coast concept called Slants and Flats where there are two slants and two flats on a certain play.
On the play we are going to examine, we can see the influence of this type of play but some tweaks.
Receivers: The left and right receiver each runs a slant route. Each stands at the line of scrimmage with his outside foot back and takes three long strides
We don't have the left and right receivers running slant routes. We have five guys split wide. The two receivers inside to the left of the formation, Tommylee Lewis and tight end Coby Fleener are running slants.
Halfback: As the play is drawn, the halfback has blitz pickup responsibilities at the snap. If any defender blitzes wide of the left tackle's outside foot, the halfback must block him. If no one blitzes on that side, the halfback releases into the flat.
In this case, it's an empty set so all of the responsibility is on Drew Brees to get the ball out if the Chargers are blitzing more than the Saints block.
This role is filled by not a halfback but receiver Willie Snead.
Fullback: The fullback is the hot receiver on this route. If a defender blitzes wide of the right tackle, the fullback must sprint into the flat and prepare for an immediate throw.
Tight End: This play isn't designed for the tight end. He runs a seam route to occupy the attention of the safety covering him (or covering the zone behind the flanker on the right side). The tight end must release cleanly and attack the seam hard, ideally bringing a safety with him to the deep middle.
Air Coryell Offense
Payton doesn't only draw inspiration from the West Coast Offense, though. He also adopts principles from another of the NFL's major offensive systems, the Air Coryell Offense.
Before Walsh's offense took its name, the Air Coryell was called the West Coast Offense. The philosophies are based upon the offensive views of Don Coryell, who like Walsh coached under the legendary Sid Gillman, one of the visionaries who gave us numerous tenets of the modern passing game we take for granted today.
There are numerous aspects of the offense. My former colleague Danny Kelly wrote a comprehensive piece on Coryell a few years ago. You can read it here. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to focus on one aspect.
While Walsh's offense looked to stretch the offense horizontally across the field, Coryell's offense does so vertically. Again, space is critical to an offense's success. Space means running room and passing windows. The more space an offense can create, the higher its odds for success.
Again, space can be created by forcing the defense to cover a greater portion of the field. If the deep pass is even a threat, it forces the defense to keep people deep to defend it.
Let's turn to another set of hi-tech GGN graphics to display.
If you attack the deep part of the field, the defense has to cover the deep part of the field.
Sometimes you will hear fans complain about their team throwing deep too much. If you don't have a quarterback who is a good deep ball thrower, why do it?
Running a successful offense isn't only about the plays that work. Sometimes plays that don't work serve a purpose.
You might not complete a high percentage of deep passes, but the defense has to defend that part of the field if the offense tries to throw there. Even if the offense doesn't complete many, the damage a deep completion does can wreck the game even if one is completed. Because the defense has to keep guys deep, there is less traffic underneath.
Coryell certainly wanted his teams to be adept at throwing deep. Again, deep passes can be mortal wounds to a defense when you think about all of the yardage hitting just one gains. If you can hit many, it is going to be a monster offensive day. Instead of needing to nickle and dime your way down the field with ten completions, you can gain just as much yardage with one deep ball.
One of the go-to concepts Payton loves to exploit is the seam route. It is a vertical route that originates in the middle of the field. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is a point down the field where safeties take over coverage of a receiver from the linebackers (or corners). The seam route is supposed to be attack during the transition, after the linebacker (or corner) passes off a receiver but before the safety picks him up.
A few years back, our sister site, Canal Street Chronicles, which covers the Saints noted the West Coast Offense roots and theorized on how the Saints adapted their roster building philosophies to the system.
The Saints offense is changing how defenses are being built. They need to get pressure, but due to the quickness of the Saints quarterback, it is more efficient to have that pressure come from a defensive tackle. A penetrating DT is the greatest priority -- the quickest route from point A to point B is a straight line, and there is nothing a quarterback hates more than pressure in his face from a DT. He has nowhere to step up and many times runs into a blocked DE on the edge. It helps to have good DE's, but they may not have enough time to get there when the quarterback can quickly plant and throw.
When your quarterback gets the ball out quickly, you don't need two Willie Roaf's protecting him on either side because the edge rush (or blitz) normally needs more time than a three step drop to get to the QB. So that money instead goes to freak nasty guards who can prevent what scares a quarterback the most-- that interior pass rush from dominant defensive tackles (more on that later in the article).
During the Payton years, the Saints have generally invested heavily in their guards. I would imagine part of this has to do with the West Coast influence in their offense, which does call for quick passes.
I also think it has to do with their fondness for the seam route. When they have attacked deep, they have loved to do it down the middle of the field. As many football fans are aware, Drew Brees has less than ideal size for a quarterback. By making the middle of the offensive line strong, they keep the middle of the pocket sturdy and a clean horizon down the middle of the field for the deep passes in that direction.
One of the things Payton is the master of doing is getting the matchup he wants. Part of that comes from roster building. You can't create mismatches unless you have players who are mismatches.
Just as Coryell utilized Kellen Winslow, a tight end with a wide receiver skillset who lined up all over the field, the Saints have done an excellent job at finding pass catchers with unusual skillsets. The first Draft pick of the Payton Era was Reggie Bush, the superprospect out of USC. Bush was a back, but many analysts said at the time his skillset was so refined as a receiver that he might have been a first round pick had he been a pure receiver. While Bush's career ultimately fell short of the Hall of Fame expectations the Saints had for him, he was a productive player for the franchise, leading the team in receptions as a rookie with 88 and finishing second the next two seasons.
After his 2011 trade to Miami, the Saints added another back with a reputation as a big-time pass catcher by signing Darren Sproles in free agency.
Through the years, the Saints also have added players with tight end builds but wide receiver skillsets in Jeremy Shockey and then Jimmy Graham.
Going back to that first Draft in New Orleans for Payton, New Orleans picked a small school propsect in the seventh round. He was a big receiver many projected as a tight end. That prospect was Marques Colston, one of the most prolific receivers of his era and a player the Saints used to create mismatches throughout his tenure with the team.
Deployments, Formations, and Motions
It's difficult to put together an offense without talented players, but an offense is only as good as the way you utilize that talent.
Payton utilizes his players very well.
Running back is a position where you think about a player's skill as a rusher. That is natural. It is a running position. It always will be a running position. It is nice to have a guy in your platoon with receiver skills as the Saints had with Sproles. You can stick him in the slot and draw mismatches as the other team sticks a safety or a linebacker against him, who are not equipped to handle somebody with Sproles' skillset.
Having a guy with tight end size and receiver skills like Graham allows you to split him out wide and watch him overpower a cornerback with his size.
If you go back seven years, the Super Bowl winning touchdown the Saints scored utilized Shockey to do just that.
The Saints also use a dizzying array of formations, motions, and shifts to get an edge.
Sometimes they help in the simplest of ways.
Let's go back to the first play we discussed in the West Coast section.
Our formation with three receivers to the left and one receiver to the right isolated our primary target one on one in man coverage. The completion was a relatively easy one. All our receiver needed to do was to beat his man. All of the traffic and potential help on defense would be on the other side of the field because that's where most of the receivers were.
And now I'm going to show you something about our second West Coast play that I didn't show you before.
Prior to the snap, Ingram went in motion out of the backfield to a receiver spot. A linebacker followed him.
Why does that matter? It gave away to Brees that the Chargers were playing man to man coverage. Why would a linebacker go way out wide following Ingram unless he was in man to man coverage?
Understanding the route and the coverage, Brees now knew that Fleener was going to take the circled guy away from a spot where he could jump into the throwing lane.
If he was in zone coverage, his zone might have been right dropping back right to where Brees was going to throw the ball. The play would have become tougher. Brees might have either needed to change the play or to find a new option. This became an easy completion because of how the motion gave away the coverage.
Payton is the master of finding these matchups, and his offense has shown a philosophical willingness to attack the entire field. The ball could go in any direction, which makes life difficult on the defense.
Sean Payton will not be running the Jets offense. John Morton will be. We don't know how much of Payton's philosophy Morton will absorb. We don't know whether how much skill Payton has passed off to him.
We do know that Morton will not be bringing Drew Brees. The Jets need a quarterback no matter how much skill Morton has as an offensive architect. Payton is an excellent designer and schemer, but he would be nowhere without a quarterback would could take advantage of it like Brees.
With that said, the Jets could see some things to like if Morton has absorbed what he has seen from Payton. The Jets might not have players with the same skill level as Payton has had over the years, but they do have some versatile pieces. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have had success lining up in multiple spots. Quincy Enunwa is a movable chess piece. Bilal Powell and Matt Forte both have genuine receiving skills.
There definitely are ways the Jets could take advantage if Morton incorporates some elements of what he has learned in New Orleans.
Payton isn't the only person he has learned from, though. In the next part of our series, we will aim to discuss some of the things Morton might take from another mentor, Jim Harbaugh.